Don Khong

Don Khong is the largest of the Mekong islands at 16 km long and 8 km wide. It's the place to relax or explore by bicycle. Visitors might be surprised by the smooth asphalt roads, electricity and general standard of amenities that exist on the island but two words explain it all - Khamtay Siphandone - Laos' former president, who has a residence on the island.

Around the island

Don Khong's 'capital' is
Muang Khong
, a small former French settlement. Pigs and chickens scrabble for food under the houses and just 50 m inland the houses give way to paddy fields. There are two wats in the town.
Wat Kan Khong
, also known as Wat Phuang Kaew, is visible from the jetty: a large gold Buddha in the
of subduing Mara garishly overlooks the Mekong. Much more attractive is
Wat Chom Thong
at the upstream extremity of the village, which may date from the early 19th century but which was much extended during the colonial period. The unusual Khmer-influenced sim may be gently decaying but it is doing so with style. The wat compound, with its carefully tended plants and elegant buildings, is very peaceful. The naga heads on the roof of the main sim are craftily designed to channel water, which issues from their mouths.

Most people come to Muang Khong as a base for visiting the
Li Phi
Khong Phapheng Falls
in the far south. However, these trips, alongside the dolphin-watching trips, are much easier to arrange from Don Deth or Don Khone. This island is a destination in itself and offers a great insight into Lao rural life without all the hustle and bustle found in more built-up areas. To a certain extent, save electricity, a sprinkling of cars and a couple of internet terminals, time stands still in Dong Khong.

The island itself is worth exploring by bicycle and deserves more time than most visitors give it. It is flat - except in the interior where there are approximately 99 hills - the roads are quiet, so there is less risk of being mown down by a timber truck, and the villages and countryside offer a glimpse of traditional Laos. Most people take the southern 'loop' around the island, via
Ban Muang Saen Nua
, a distance of about 25 km (two to three hours by bike). The villages along the section of road south of
Ban Muang Saen Nua
are picturesque with buffalos grazing and farmers tending to their rice crops. Unlike other parts of Laos the residents here are fiercely protective of their forests and logging incurs very severe penalties.

About 6 km north of Ban Muang Saen Nua is a hilltop wat, which is arguably Don Khong's main claim to national fame.
Wat Phou Khao Kaew
(Glass Hill Monastery) is built on the spot where an entrance leads down to the underground lair of the nagas, known as
Muang Nak
. This underground town lies beneath the waters of the Mekong, with several tunnels leading to the surface - another is at That Luang in Vientiane. Lao legend has it that the nagas will come to the surface to protect the Lao whenever the country is in danger.

Tham Phou Khiaw
is tucked away among the forests of the
Green Mountain
in the centre of the island. It's a small cave, containing earthenware pots. Buddha images and other relics and offerings litter the site. Every Lao New Year (April) townsfolk climb up to the cave to bathe the images. Although it's only 15 minutes' walk from the road, finding the cave is not particularly straightforward except during Lao New Year when it is possible to follow the crowds.

On the northern tip of the island is a sandy beach. Note that swimming is generally not advised due to parasites in the water and potentially strong currents. There is a rumour that Laos' former president, Khamtay Siphandone, will be building a resort here in the next few years. In nearby
Wat Houa Khong
, approximately 13 km north of Muang Khong, is the former President's modest abode set in traditional Lao style.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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